Equal Rites (1987): Terry Pratchett

★★★ ½

The Discworld Reread: Book III

Some more light reading was necessary after that brilliant, but thought-provoking last book and I returned with contentment to the Discworld. While the first two books dealt with one overarching storyline, this third novel breaks the mould and adopts the pattern that Pratchett would use in the rest of the series. Each book, while it features one or more of his recurring characters, is based around a particular theme or concept and can stand virtually alone. And so here, in Equal Rites, we turn our attentions away from Rincewind and the Luggage towards the distant Ramtop mountains, and one very special baby.

Before the wizard Drum Billet dies, he needs to find a worthy apprentice to inherit his magical staff. Since an eighth son of an eighth son is usually born with magical abilities, he comes to the remote village of Bad Ass, where the blacksmith’s wife is currently in labour after providing him with seven sons so far. The newborn is duly brought downstairs and presented with the staff, and the wizard dies in the knowledge that his task is complete. There’s just one problem. No one thought to check inside the baby’s blanket first. Thus, Eskarina Smith, youngest child and only daughter of the Bad Ass blacksmith, finds herself saddled with a remarkable destiny.

Women can’t be wizards. Everyone knows that. And in the opinion of Granny Weatherwax – local midwife, herbalist and witch – no sane woman would want to fuss around with a lot of fancy firework magic when she could be doing sensible things instead. As Esk grows up, Granny keeps an eye on her and, since the idea of a female wizard is ridiculous, decides to teach her witchcraft. This is all well and good until the child’s unpredictable powers start getting out of hand. Despite her dislike for ‘forn parts’ – i.e. anything further than half a day’s walk – Granny accepts the inevitable. The only people who can teach Esk are at Ankh-Morpork’s unrivalled Unseen University, and so to Ankh-Morpork they must go. But Granny knows there will be challenges ahead. The child’s obstinacy for one thing. Wizards’ general stupidity. And the fact that Esk’s power is drawing unwelcome attention from the shapeless things that chitter and scuttle behind the cracks at the edge of the universe, just waiting for a chance to break through…

Pratchett is well and truly in his stride now. He’s given up trying to do sword and sorcery and is harnessing his splendid British sense of humour instead. Equal Rites has the kind of pace and humour that I’m used to from the later books and it centres on the kind of culture clash that powers many of the funniest Discworld novels. It’s as if Pratchett is trying the whole thing on for size. He also turns to a set of entirely new characters, including one who has a large role to play in later stories. Not having read this for well over a decade, I’d forgotten that Granny Weatherwax makes her first appearance here. While I lamented the absence of the glorious Nanny Ogg (her future sidekick), the Granny of Equal Rites is already recognisable: both steely and secretly sentimental. We also get to spend a little more time in Unseen University, which seems to have recovered well from the havoc wrought upon it in The Light Fantastic, and which is beginning to acquire its own distinctive personality as a setting.

For me, the first three Discworld books represent a kind of testing of the waters. Having found a formula that works here, however, Pratchett careens gleefully through the rest of the series. I’m especially looking forward to the next book, Mort, which I remember as being the point where I really started to be gripped by this irreverent, creative universe.

Buy the book

Last in the series – The Light Fantastic

Next in the series – Mort

And here is more Paul Kidby, this time a selection of sketches showing Granny Weatherwax in various moods. Note the grim determination with which she has to jump-start her old broomstick, her cherished bees, the hat-pins and the sensible shoes. His vision of her is absolutely spot-on.

Kidby: Granny Weatherwax

Granny Weatherwax © Paul Kidby

5 thoughts on “Equal Rites (1987): Terry Pratchett

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    A friend I was once arguing about with about this series said that Discworld is the strange case of a series that gets better the more formulaic it becomes. This was a couple of years ago and may have been disproved by now by the later novels (which apparently aren’t as good), but there still seems to be some truth in it, and the series indeed seems to be best where the novels are variations on a distinct and unchanging pattern. It appears almost a bit, dare I say it, Baroque?

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Ha ha – that’s almost certainly why I enjoy it so much! Seriously though, your friend is absolutely right. I haven’t read the most recent novels – I stopped at The Thief of Time, if I remember correctly – but all of my favourites follow a similar formula. But sometimes that’s what you want – it’s the literary equivalent of a nice cosy blanket and a cup of tea. 🙂

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